Part II: Jon Krampner
Jon Krampner, who has had a lifetime on-and-off affair with peanut butter, is the author of two previous books: “The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television” (Rutgers University Press, 1997) and “Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley” (Watson-Guptill/Backstage Books, 2006). He lives in Los Angeles and has a slight preference for crunchy. More at CreamyandCrunchy.
Caryn Hartglass: Hey we’re back! I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Here it is, the 18th of December, 2012, and we are now going to talk about peanut butter. Do you love peanut butter as much as I do and as much as a lot of people do? Well, there’s a great story about peanut butter and we’re going to talk about it today. I say this frequently: every food has its story. And, it’s true. Jon Krampner, who has had a lifetime on-and-off affair with peanut butter, is the author of two previous books, The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television and Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley. He lives in Los Angeles and has a slight preference for crunchy. And his website is creamyandcrunchy.com. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Jon Krampner: It’s good to be here, Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. When I first heard about this book [Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food], I just had to get it. I enjoyed reading it, and I ate a lot of peanut butter while I was reading.
Jon Krampner: I’ve been hearing that from several people.
Caryn Hartglass: You can’t not, you know? We keep reading about it, you just, I want some.
Jon Krampner: Gotcha.
Caryn Hartglass: So, one of the things I love about reading about the history of a food, and—I’ve only found a few books like this, one was on tomatoes and one was on wheat—but what’s fascinating about these books is how you really can learn a lot about history in general while you’re telling the story about this one food.
Jon Krampner: Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s connections to slavery, racism, poverty, wars, politics, what am I missing?
Jon Krampner: It does go all over the map as you said. Just to give one example, Skippy peanut butter was founded in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933 by a man, Joseph Rosefield, in Alameda, California. Originally he targeted—he had envisioned it as kind of a food for the wealthy, but he wound up realizing that his true market were the people who needed it just for the protein to stay alive more inexpensively than they could do with meat.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. It’s very similar to white bread, which was originally for those who could afford it: this hygienic, clean bread. And now unfortunately it’s something that feeds only those who have very limited budgets. Where the more privileged can afford the whole grains, the organics, the more natural foods. That’s kinda similar with peanut butter, too.
Jon Krampner: Well, yeah. Actually, there are a number of interesting things about peanut butter which I’m sure your listeners will want to learn in the sense that, of course, peanuts and peanut butter are a very rich source of plant protein. Which, that much I assume your listeners already know, which is why it’s so popular among vegetarians.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Well as you probably know, I promote a plant-based diet. I’m a vegan, and peanut butter is a very important food in my community.
Jon Krampner: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. There are some things that may be a little more arcane that you and your listeners might not be aware of, though. For example, there are two main ways of stabilizing peanut butter. One is hydrogenation. The other is using palm oil in what’s called the fractionation method, in which the palm oil is alternately cooled or chilled. To take up hydrogenation first, I eat mostly natural or old-fashioned peanut butter, I don’t care for hydrogenation, for all the texture that it gives to the peanut butter, but the one thing—that as much as I hate to say in defense of hydrogenation—is it gets a bad rap regarding trans fats. There are some trans fats in hydrogenated oils, but it’s a miniscule amount of no real significance. However, the problems from my point of view with hydrogenation are, one, tends to muscle, the peanut flavor, aroma, and texture, and secondly, this really surprised me while I was working on the book, the main oils used to hydrogenate peanut butter now are soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and canola or rapeseed. Well, most soybean and cottonseed oil grown in the United States is genetically modified. So peoplewho eat any of the major stabilized brands or anything that’s stabilized using these oils, without realizing it, is eating GMO food. Now, because of the rap about trans fats and hydrogenation, which as I said is largely overrated, what some peanut butter companies have done—this is really kind of sneaky from my point-of-view—is they use palm oil to stabilize the peanut butter. And again, it’s this fractionation process in which you alternately chill and warm up the palm oil, and you put it in and that also stabilizes the peanut butter. This is marketed either as no-stir peanut butter or as natural peanut butter. What is the problem with this?
Caryn Hartglass: We were just talking about “natural,” that funny word that really has no definition.
Jon Krampner: Absolutely. It’s especially—as someone who loves peanut butter as much as I do—to see peanut butter stabilized with palm oil sold as natural just really chaps my hide. As a matter of fact, for the book I interviewed this man, Frank Delfino, who had been both a plant engineer and plant manager for Skippy. Regarding using fractionated palm oil to stabilize peanut butter and then calling it natural, he said, “That may be natural someplace, but it’s not natural in nature.” But again, the problems with this fractionated palm oil—it’s twofold. One, it’s highly saturated; as a matter of fact, it’s more saturated than lard.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. That can’t be good.
Jon Krampner: It’s a plant, but it’s more saturated than lard. And palm fruit oil is even more saturated than palm oil. So anything that has on the label palm oil, palm fruit oil, or even organic palm oil, to heck with it. The other problem, though, is an environmental one, which is that palm plantations are being grown in the tropics to produce this palm oil, and they displace both rainforest and natural savannah. So both in terms of your individual health and ecological health, palm oil is a bad bet. And so it may say “natural” on the label, but remember: it’s not natural in nature.
Caryn Hartglass: Well what’s interesting is that, those that have been manufacturing peanut butter were using the hydrogenated version and then because there was some bad press they found this alternative with palm oil. What’s wrong with just natural peanut butter?
Jon Krampner: Well, the problem from a general public point-of-view is, I guess to put it in a nutshell, people don’t like to play with their food.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s too much trouble to stir up your peanut butter?
Jon Krampner: Well you know how we Americans are, we want everything convenient, we want to hurry, we want it now. But the fact is, I grew up eating hydrogenated peanut butter.
Caryn Hartglass: Me too.
Jon Krampner: And so to me, that was peanut butter. And then, when I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s, I discovered Deaf Smith Peanut Butter, which doesn’t exist anymore, at least under that name, but it’s still just a nostalgic old favorite among some of us. And I was like, “Well, this is kind of a little goopy and a little messy. But by God, it tastes good and the aroma of peanuts coming off, it’s like nothing else.” And so, the main thing to do—‘cause now I pretty much always eat natural peanut butter, for the book as part of the research process I did eat some hydrogenated again—really the main thing is, you do need to refrigerate it because ordinarily, the peanut oil will pool at the top and then as light hits it, it will accelerate the process, it’s going stale. So you put it in the refrigerator—oh, actually, it’s the heat as well as the light that will cause it to go stale more quickly. So you put it in the refrigerator, you turn it upside down so that the oils and the solids just naturally remix, and you’re good to go.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that’s something I didn’t know. Now I need to be turning my peanut butter upside down.
Jon Krampner: It saves you the trouble and expense of buying a mixer.
Caryn Hartglass: I guess I could do that with my other nut butters too, and my seed butters, turn them upside down.
Jon Krampner: Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I learned something new, and you didn’t include that in your book.
Jon Krampner: I believe…
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t remember reading that.
Jon Krampner: Well, it’s… In any case, there it is.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Maybe I skipped it. Okay, so there’s some intrigue, there’s some scandal, there’s all kinds of stories that are related to peanut butter that have gone on over time. One of the things that is so disturbing—I guess a lot of it began in the second President Bush era when a lot of regulation kind of got loose and companies were allowed to do whatever they wanted and they forewent a lot of safety.
Jon Krampner: Yes. The operating political philosophy, as far as food goes, of the George W. Bush administration was what the Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes for the New York Times, Paul Krugman, called “E. coli conservatism.” And he called it that because the philosophy is, they are so dedicated to there being no government regulation that they would rather people get sick from E. coli and other bacteria and food problems than have food regulated. And you had two major Salmonella outbreaks during the George W. Bush administration. The first was in 2006-2007, that was with Peter Pan. There were several hundred injuries. I can’t remember the figure off the top of my head, but it’s something like: for every reported case, scientists estimate there are either twenty-eight or thirty-eight unreported cases.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. It’s always bigger than we know.
Jon Krampner: Yes. And in 2008-2009, you had the notorious Peanut Corporation of America case, in which seven people died that we know of, and more than seven hundred people were injured. What’s especially disturbing about that case is that emails have come out to indicate that they knew the product was contaminated and they sent it out anyway. And of course, right now there is another ongoing Salmonella contamination out of the Sunland Inc. plant in Portales, New Mexico. Again, there have been only about forty or so injuries from that case. Now, owing to the Food Modernization Safety Act that was passed in the wake of the Peanut Corporation of America debacle, when Sunland started to gear its plant up to start running again, the Food and Drug Administration now had the power to say, “Uh-uh. Not so fast.” As a personal note, one of the things that bothers me, beyond the more important public policy of what’s going on of course, is that two of my favorite peanut butters were made at the Sunland plant. And so I’m really having a bit of a hard time coping at the moment.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, which peanut butters are those?
Jon Krampner: Arrowhead Mills Creamy Organic, which to me is the platonic ideal of peanut butter, and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Valencia with Flaxseed. And it’s interesting to note that both of those peanut butters were made—or are made, because I hope they’ll be making a comeback of course—they’re made with the Valencia peanut, which is a bit of an exotic in that most peanut butters made in the United States are made with Runner peanuts, which are 80% of the U.S. peanut crop. And they are, according to some people who are knowledgeable about the peanut industry, Runners tend to be the blandest of the four peanuts grown in the U.S. There have been some recent varieties developed which are a bit more flavorful, but I think the critics would still hold to their guns on that. Then you get Virginias, which are about 15% of the U.S. crop, Spanish peanuts, which are about 4-5% of the crop, and Valencias, which are grown only in southwestern—I’m sorry, southeastern New Mexico, and the adjoining counties of the Texas panhandle, that’s only 1 or 2% of the U.S. crop. Now, it used to be that most peanut butter was made from a combination of Spanish, which are very flavorful because they have a high oil content, and Virginias, which have a lower oil content, and that counterbalances the Spanish and keeps the peanut butter from being too oily. But starting around 1970, a Runner hybrid was developed—it was called the Florunner because it was developed at the University of Florida—which was a bit more tasty than prior Runner varieties had been. The peanut butter industry, tentatively at first, and then whole hog shortly afterwards, switched to the Runner because it’s a very prolific peanut, it grows very evenly and it’s less expensive. About the only peanut butter that I found still made with Spanish peanuts—this is a natural or old-fashioned peanut butter—is made by the Krema Nut Company of Columbus Ohio. There are two Krema peanut butter companies in Columbus Ohio; both of their peanut butters are fine. But the Krema Nut Company, they make a crunchy using Spanish peanut butter, which is just, it’s extraordinary, because most crunchy peanut butter is really creamy peanut butter into which some chunks have just been dropped after the fact. But the crunchy peanut butter from the Krema Nut Company of Columbus Ohio, they just do a coarse grind. And so it’s basically all these chunks of peanut butter that’s kind of mortared together with a little creamy Spanish peanut butter. There is one peanut butter that I found which is just made from Virginias, that is the Koeze Company, K-O-E-Z-E, the Koeze Cream-Nut Brand, it’s made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I think they’re making some Spanish as well as Virginia peanut butters now, so you’d have to check with them and be careful. What’s interesting about that, other than the fact that it has kind of a distinctive flavor, is the creamy peanut butters today are—well, they’re very creamy, but—going way back to early peanut butter history, you had creamy peanut butter and coarse, or grainy, peanut butters. You didn’t have crunchy, which didn’t exist until 1935 when it was test-marketed by Skippy in Salt Lake City. So this Koeze Cream-Nut, it has a coarse or grainy texture, and it has I guess what you’d call a “different mouth feel,” neither better nor worse, but it’s just interesting and distinctive.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, some people that are familiar with Whole Foods Market, many of those stores have a machine and you can put your nuts in and make the butter right there, and it probably gives that similar coarse grind. It’s a coarse grind, and I love it.
Jon Krampner: I think it actually produces kind of a creamy…it’s kind of a creamy texture, at least the ones I did. But since you mentioned the grind-your-own, there is something I’d like to mention on the subject regarding health issues. This is a question of aflatoxin, which is a mold which can grow on peanut shells in the field, especially under conditions of drought stress and which can, under some conditions, get onto the peanut itself. As much as I hate to say anything good about the major corporate manufacturers of peanut butter, they actually tend to be the best on the aflatoxin issue. As a man who used to run the laboratory at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, told me, in a bad season, the major companies will have four to five parts per billion of aflatxoin; a good season, two to three parts, which is as low as it gets. He said you can’t have zero; peanuts are an agricultural product, they’re grown in the field. With the natural peanut butters, it’s a bit higher. But where it’s the highest, interestingly enough, is the grind-your-own peanut butter in the health food stores, where it tends to be as high as fifty parts per billion. Now, to put this in perspective, though, this guy who ran the laboratory at Consumers Union said, “Look. If you were born in the United States in the last generation or two, your odds of dying of cancer are about 25% eventually.” He said, because of the quality of the American diet—of course as we both know there are problems with that diet, but compared to the Third World, it’s still pretty good—even if… Let’s round it up and say a hundred-in—I don’t remember if it’s a million or a billion—odds of contracting cancer from aflatoxin. He said that would still be like 0.001. So he said, even if you eat a lot of peanut butter, and that means a lot of even natural peanut butter, your odds of getting cancer would go from 0.2500 to 0.2501.
Caryn Hartglass: Whew, okay, we don’t have that much to worry about. And if you’re really concerned there are plenty of other foods you can include in your diet that help boost your immune system and fight cancer.
Jon Krampner: That is correct, but I would still be wary of grinding my own peanut butter in a grind-your-own machine in a store.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Okay, we have a caller. Tom in LA, you have some recommendations on grinding peanut butter?
Tom: I don’t have a recommendation per se, but I do like peanut butter and I want to know more about making my own peanut butter, ‘cause I’m a fan of it.
Jon Krampner: Actually, like you I live in Los Angeles, and even the climate—you can grow your own peanuts here. Ideally it helps to have a sandy, loamed soil, which—I don’t know what you have in your house or neighborhood, but—you need to… The seed, of course, the peanut itself is the seed. You can’t use a roasted peanut, you can’t plant that, it just won’t go anywhere, so you would need to get some sort of seed stock in which to use to plant this. Beyond that—
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we’re going to have to pick this one up for another time because we’re out of time. Thanks Tom for your question, and thank you Jon for writing this book, Creamy and Crunchy. I really enjoyed it and I think I crave peanut butter even more than ever.
Jon Krampner: It was a pleasure talking with you, Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. Visit creamyandcrunchy.com for more information on this book and on Jon Krampner, and visit my website responsibleeatingandliving.com for all kinds of healthy tips on great food. And have a delicious week!
Jon Krampner: Thank you very much, Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, bye.
Transcribed on 3/7/2013